President signs legislation to recognize suicide as a line-of-duty death for first responders

Firefighter on the Cerro Paledo Fire
Firefighter on the Cerro Paledo Fire in New Mexico, May, 2022 by Blake McHugh.

Last week President Biden signed H.R. 6943, the Public Safety Officer Support Act, into law. The legislation expands death and disability benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program to include first responders who die by suicide or are disabled by traumatic experiences.

The new law will:

  • Allow public safety officers to seek disability benefits for PTSD linked to severe trauma by directing the PSOB to designate work-related PTSD and acute stress disorders as a line of duty injury for eligible officers as well as those who are permanently disabled as a result of attempted suicide; and
  • Allow families of public safety officers who die by trauma-linked suicide to apply for death benefits by directing the PSOB to presume that suicides are a result of job duties in certain traumatic circumstances where there is evidence that PTSD or acute stress disorder would be the cause of the injury.

The bill states that first responders or their survivors may qualify for benefits if their suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder was related to being exposed to “a harrowing circumstance posing an extraordinary and significant danger or threat to the life of or of serious bodily harm to any individual.” There are other requirements and details which are in the copy of the five-page bill below:

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

12 thoughts on “President signs legislation to recognize suicide as a line-of-duty death for first responders”

  1. Wow! This is pretty huge! Many benefits are withheld because of death by suicide. One more step in destigmatizing suicide and mental health issues. Thanks, Pres Biden and DOJ/PSOB.

  2. This law does not make any sense. If you are a LEO and you admit that you have PTSD or are having suicidal thoughts they will take your gun and your badge (especially if you have to disclose that you are taking medication). The only way to get the benefits is to have proof (i.e. have documentation that you told someone), but that doesn’t make sense because you couldn’t get the benefits once you are fired. This seems like a Catch-22. A way for the FS and NPs to fire people. And before you say I’m making things up…There are already 3 cases before the EEO/MSPB right now where the FS and NPS fired LEOs for having PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

    1. Sad to say but this will really only help the families of those who are the survivors. Cause like you said, if you mention any if that you will be out of a job

      1. I 100% agree with SR and Jumping Ship. This thing could put you on a fast track for not having a job. As it was, I barely trusted the outfit with my physical health and trusted it not at all with my mental health. Be very careful what you wish for because what you get may not be what you wished for. If the administration can’t even give you guys a much needed pay raise without completely screwing it up I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for this either. The only ones this might help are the surviving family members as Jumping Ship stated.

    2. It is not a binary decision to “fire or not fire” someone who is having suicidal thoughts. There are a gradient of alternatives to keep someone gainfully employed that is struggling. From reading through that bill it seems that they are trying to normalize utilizing solutions which fall within that gradient, especially for traumatic experience which occurred on the job.

      1. Alan, how do you determine that you got PTSD from the FS or from military service? Once you are diagnosed how do you tell your employer or should you tell your employer? What are the consequences of telling or not telling your employer? It just seems to me that this law 1) cases more problems 2) doesn’t solve the real problem.

  3. Thanks for providing this information! Finally, maybe those wildland firefighters will be “eligible “ for the help they need.

  4. Ive found its hard not to trigger or cause negative (defense) reactions when talking about the Employee Assistance Program(s) so i’ve become jaded and speak very directly and to the point when it comes up – based on my own personal experiences AND from the first hand accounts shared with me by peer’s in the business.

    This could be real good and real bad. It is a fact that many employees find the help they need from the EAP. Its also true that the EAP works well for many 1st responders. There have been many employees and responders that found the EAP to be most unhelpful to put it mildly. There are gaping holes that need to be closed within the current model of support. Go ask the people that run the Foundations (WFF & NFFF) Chances are if you haven’t run into an issue with EAP it’s because you haven’t leaned into the EAP hard enough and that isn’t a bad thing.

    I would hope that whoever carries out the leaders intent behind this new legislation have been plugged into our boots on the ground, Wildland Firefighter Foundation & National Fallen Firefighter Foundation. That way they will hear and see clearly how/where the current system works and where it does not.

    If there’s a way to weaponize it someone will find it. This obviously takes a bite out of the gorilla that needed to be taken. If we are going so far as to admit the connection between our jobs and suicide occurrence doesn’t it go without saying we should at least question if not re-evaluate current agency practices regarding steps taken to help our responders before they need to call the suicide hotline? It starts new conversations in a very dark/blind spot within our culture and agencies. Shining some light in there is 100% good for the responders/militia and all other employees.

    Where my mind goes when i hear news like this is straight to question(s). How will this decision unfold and be carried out at the tip of the sword? Another way to put it would be to ask “when a 1st responder makes the call for help how will they be filtered through the Employee Assistance Program & how will the EAP treat 1st responders going forward? Under this newly informed leaders intent how will our responders get connected to the specific support they need? Will the “hard” cases continue to be filtered by the number of allowed visits based on their duty station location, employee zip code, gender preference of the doctor & how far the person needing help is willing to drive? That is the current model. Let’s anchor in there and move this conversation forward! I’d help for free! I know how to do it and its all in the contract! Lets change those contract spec’s to read like it’s a health/support contract instead of a lunch contract.. Our responders aren’t sandwiches so lets once and for all stop treating them as such in the national EAP contract. Just a thought…

  5. You have to be careful what you say to EAP, because they report back to your management. I learned that they hard way.

  6. I experienced this first hand. When a licensed phycologist was finally located we were just establishing rapor when my 6th visit was up. Just discussing this is a step forward. There is a danger here that someone considering suicide may see this as an option that would leave their families something a struggling individual feels they can no longer provide.

What do you think?